Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Seldom-read early poetry by Tolkien

In the early part of the twentieth-century, Tolkien published a number of poems that are little-known today — some of which I’ve talked about recently. Today, I thought I’d share some even less familiar lines than those, which Tolkien published at the very early date of 1903. Have a look first at this passage:

He knew the history of our own clime,
From early days down to the present time;
And it was whispered through the villes, around,
He was a prophet and that he had found
Out many signs and secrets of the stars
And planets, and of Mercury and Mars.
Good qualities he had and bad ones too—
For, human nature is the same all through—
There never lived a man on earth who had
Not in his nature points both good and bad.
He understood the language of the trees
And flowers, and their many mysteries;
And often he would talk, around the cots,
About the goblins, to the little tots. [...]
But, owing to his age, he would forget
And contradict himself quite often, yet,
He always found the words to set him free [...]
More than a little redolent of Tolkien, the man, as we would come to know him many decades later, wouldn’t you say? With hints of Gandalf perhaps? Have a look at another passage:

A kind old face with long and hoary beard; [...]
Had bade him enter from the dusky hall,
And join their fellowship with words and song. [...]
The lines seem to prefigure Gandalf as well, with possibly a little of Treebeard thrown in — but once again, decades before those characters would take their more familiar forms. And now, a few lines of a different mood:

The keen suspense began to work on me;
I glanced aside to see what she could see;
Beneath a black veil gleamed two fiery eyes;
A cold sweat on my face began to rise.
I took all in; now firmly I believed,
That, through my good turn, I had been deceived.
That face was coarse and not a woman’s face,
Or else a man had stolen in her place.
Here, it feels as though we might be sensing the earliest inklings of the Black Riders, the Barrow Downs, and perhaps even the evil Corrigan in “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”, some forty years yet unconceived. Were all these ideas really running around in Tolkien’s mind as long ago as 1903? One more, shall we?

This is where the baby dwells—
In the land of fairy-bells,
Where the goblins grin and lurch,
Straddled on a fairy perch,
Dressed in blue, and red, and green,
(Finer sight was never seen)
Where the fairy maidens come,
When the goblins beat the drum,
Pumpkin, hollow, yellow, bright,
Calling to the dance of night,
To the ring of fairy bells;
This is where the baby dwells.

Shades of Draytonesque “pigwiggenry” again here, on which I dwelt at some length in my series on the longer poem, “Errantry”. Fairies and goblins were indeed a much greater part of Tolkien’s early imagination than his later, as illustrated here once more. All these preceding passages fit in rather nicely with the rest of Tolkien’s juvenilia, don’t they, and yet these lines are all but unknown to scholars of the Oxford don — and entirely unknown, I daresay, to more casual fans. Why should that be? They aren’t any worse than the rest of his juvenilia. In any case, when these poems were published, Tolkien was leaving adolescence behind, already 22 years old ... Let that number sink in a moment ...

Nonplussed yet? Okay, some of you are probably waiting for a straightforward explanation, but those more knowledgeable should be scratching your heads in confusion by this point. Tolkien was born in 1892, you say, meaning he would have been only 11, not 22 years old, in 1903. And how is it we haven’t heard of these published poems, anyway? On the other hand, these lines do sound like others he wrote in his youth. Is this all just an elaborate hoax? No, I assure you, it’s no prank.

So, did somebody get the date wrong? No, not the date. The name. And it’s not wrong, just incomplete. Allow me to explain.

J.R.R. Tolkien was indeed born in 1892, as many of you know. But, er, I may have forgotten to mention, these lines were written by James Kenneth Tolkien, a Canadian, born in 1881. They’re part of a collection of poems called The Inn of Gahnobway, published in Montreal in 1903. The collection even begins with a “Publisher’s Letter” in which it is maintained by a “Mysterious Traveller” that he “came across these manuscripts in a hollow rock,” a topos at once familiar to readers of the English Tolkien.

The other Tolkien — J.K., not J.R.R. — would go on to publish at least two other collections, the last I know of in 1928 (Thoughts Here and There). But I haven’t been able to learn much else about the elusive Canadian — and certainly not whether he might be one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “remoter cousins to the ninth degree” as it is so tempting to suspect. This is actually a distinct possibility, I’d say, given the common spelling of this uncommon surname. One can easily imagine the two Tolkiens, close in age, undoubtedly unaware of one another, shared a common Prussian ancestor among the Tollkühn’s of Saxony. But until more information comes to light, we can’t know this for sure. If there are any genealogists reading, we’d all appreciate anything you might be able to uncover.

In addition to the similarity of their verses (not to the point of being uncanny, but certainly to the point of being intriguing), J.K. Tolkien even seems to resemble J.R.R. a little bit. Sensitive eyes, patrician cheekbones. Though I guess there’s a tendency toward resemblance in most daguerreotypes, hahae. And his signature also has a similar calligraphic quality (though no doubt partly a function of its Age). Take a look. A pretty remarkable coincidence, all of this, isn’t it?


  1. Intriguing, indeed! What an interesting coincidence.

  2. Jason

    very interesting!! I really get a lot from your posts so keep them coming. Did a lot of reading over the holiday to prepare for the list of to do's to come in 2009 which I am boldly posting on my blog. Your article about the Three Rings in TJ vol 5 is excellent - a lot to think about!! Here's to an exciting and fun filled 2009 - and with the credit crunch in full gear more time to stay home and study (thats why I have given myself a new language to learn!!) - just go to stay away (as much as possible) from Lord of the Rings Online!!! Happy New Year - Andy

  3. Cat Bastet, thanks from dropping by. Yes, it’s quite interesting. Probably doesn’t mean anything at all, but I was happy to make the discovery.

  4. Andy, Happy New Year to you and David as well! Thanks for the kind words about both Lingwë and my piece in Tolkien Studies. I’ve been getting a slow trickle of feedback on it — almost entirely positive.

    I hear you about staying home, and (hobbit-)holing up with a pile of books. Which new language have you set yourself to learn?

  5. And next you will be unearthing some obscure novel by J.R.R. Rowling?
    Wonderful blog :)

  6. Thanks, Anon. I was hoping somebody might notice the conincidence of J.K. :)

  7. Oh, James Kenneth. I did some research on him once. He later became a high-school teacher in Torrance, California, where he died in 1935. I have his obituary from the local paper. And I have visited his - sadly - unmarked grave.

  8. It’s nice to find that someone remembers him, or at least, has discovered him independently. I should have expected you would have known of him, if anyone in the (J.R.R.) Tolkien community did. He died in 1935, did he? That would have made him only 53 or 54 then, wouldn’t it? Too young! And an unmarked grave, you say? What a shame.

    One question: since it was unmarked, how did you know know where to find it?

  9. The obituary named the cemetery where he'd be buried. It's a rather large cemetery, so I went to the office and asked. I was mostly hoping to find his other relatives nearby, but there were none; instead there was a sad blank space in the row of plaques embedded in the earth.

    PS: I miswrote before: he was in Inglewood, not Torrance.

    The obituary said that JK had donated copies of his other book of poetry, "Thoughts Here and There", to the Inglewood Public Library. Not surprisingly, they don't still have it, though a small private university nearby does.

  10. Thanks for the additional details, David. I really didn’t expect to learn anything else about him, so this was especially welcome.

  11. According to my latest research he was a descendant of Daniel Gottlieb Tolkien (born in 1746 in Gdańsk, Poland, died in 1813 in London). Daniel's brother, John Benjamin Tolkien was Professor's great-great-grandfather.

    Daniel's son, Charles Tolkien went to Canada as a Methodist missionary.


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